Israeli and Jewish perspectives on genocide prevention

by Yair Auron

Yair Auron at the conference

Yair Auron at the conference

Hereby we are publishing the remarks by Yair Auron at the conference "Genocide prevention", the first of four meetings planned by Gariwo in cooperation with Franco Parenti Theatre, under the patronage of the University of Milan and the Corriere della Sera Foundation, to discuss the crisis of Europe and the Righteous of our time.

Before I begin, I would like to thank Gabriel Nissim and Gariwo for inviting me to this important conference.

In Neve Shalom – Wahat el Salam, the only Jewish-Arab village that exist in Israel, we are collaborating with Gabriele and Gariwo in developing our Garden of the World's Righteous.

After World War I, many people thought there would be no more wars. The Armenian Genocide took place under the guise of war, using battles as a way to hide the atrocities. During wartime many did not know what was happening, and other events covered up the mass killings.

If we adopt the point of view of the perpetrator we can call the genocide of the Armenians a "successful genocide". It did "succeed" as about a million and a half Armenians were killed and many, many ended up being refugees. Then the Turks succeeded in covering up the story. The Armenian genocide was simply not spoken about. Yet, between 1918 and 1920 the issue was raised and some Turkish leaders were found guilty of massacres (the term genocide did not exist at that time). Subsequently, the Turks resorted to a policy of denial and it was "successful".

We say, in genocide studies, the final stage of genocide is denial. If genocide denial is successful, as it is the case in the Armenian Genocide, then the genocide is "successful". This genocide is not even recognized by the majority of the States in the world...

During a speech given by Hitler in August 1939, before the invasion of Poland, (he did not talk about the extermination of the Jews, but rather about that of the leadership of Poland) the German dictator said we should not be afraid of Western civilization. In this speech he stated, "Who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians ?". This is an authentic sentence. We have all the scientific proof that this statement was made, yet the Turks deny it. They publish books and try to show that it is a fabrication.

The Second World War was a convenient opportunity for killings the Jews, exterminate them along with the other victims. As stated earlier, the confusion of war provides an advantageous cover to commit acts of genocide. This is a clear similarity between the Jewish and Armenian Genocides. There is a debate whether the extermination of the Jews was intentional, whether it was decided beforehand, but still, war was an opportune time to commit this act. In the debate between the "internationalists" and "functionalists", the latter say that in the beginning the Nazis just wanted to get rid of Jews, so they had one plan, then another. Yet functionally, Nazis had to get rid of Jews, so they had to kill them.

There are also differences between the two cases. The Armenian genocide was committed with the use of "primitive" means: guns and similar weapons. The Jewish genocide was more "efficient" with for the first time, (and hopefully the last) the use of the gas chambers. This is a significant and important issue because these were "factories of death". Nazis developed such a project because it was "so hard" to kill that many people with just guns. It was also terrible for the perpetrators. In an important speech, Himmler said that watching Jews being shot was shocking. He spoke to ranking officers and noted that sometimes, while shooting, the blood sprayed back on to the soldiers and on their uniforms. Himmler said they had to continue those actions and overcome their emotional sentiment because their duty was to save Germany from the tyranny of the Jews. Himmler praised the soldiers, but began to look for more efficient means for killing. The initial stages included the use of engine gases, but this was not effective enough. More efficient ways were to be found as more and more people were sent to the gas chambers.

What is terrible, in my opinion, is that in order to save money the Nazis calculated minimal concentration of Zyklon-B (a cyanide-based pesticide) sufficient to cause death. For example, if 10 grams were too much, perhaps with 9 grams they were able to kill those inside the gas chamber just as "effectively". If so, 9 grams were used as a cost-effective way to kill "quickly and efficiently”. There was also the issue of keeping their "hands clean". Eventually the German officers dumped in the Zyklon B pellets through vents in the roof, or holes on the side of the chamber, and those who removed the dead bodies were Jews, not Germans. The process became antiseptic for the perpetrators.

In the case of the Rwandan genocide the total number of perpetrators was higher. In 1995, about 150,000 people were arrested and accused of taking an active part in the killing. (It is estimated that "only" about 40,000 Germans took active part in the murdering of the Jews.)

"The Holocaust: Unique or Not"

In Israel, unfortunately, we do not study comparative genocide; we only teach the Jewish genocide, the Holocaust. We do not teach about others, neither in high schools nor in universities. This is a morally and academically unacceptable situation. For many years we have developed the philosophy of the uniqueness and exclusivity of the Holocaust. I do not accept this. I think the Holocaust falls in the category of genocide. The Holocaust is not a unique category as if we have one concept called the Holocaust, and another called genocide. I think the Holocaust is to be studied in the framework of comparative genocide. In this framework we have to examine common features or what is unique among acts of genocide.

Regarding the Jewish genocide, there are unique characteristics like the gas chambers. However, the racial theories are not unique, because mass murder the racial theories were developed in varying degrees of sophistication. Racial theories against the Jews were very well developed and scientific. Additionally, another exclusive characteristic is the fact that the Germans wanted to exterminate the Jews anywhere they could. Their mission was to kill them all over Europe. Even in North Africa and the Middle East. Even small communities were included within the overall number of 12 million.

"After the Genocide"...

In Israel, we have second and third generations of genocide survivors and there are numerous studies about them. We know that not only the victim suffered; parents continue to suffer as do their children and grandchildren. They continue to have stressful behavior regarding the suffering of their parents and grandparents. This is the same for the Armenians. Armenian survivors gave birth to the fourth generation. We have to do comparative studies that allow science to bring forth new insights about these issues. We could learn from these comparative studies. Scientists must use comparative ways, but unfortunately, in Israel, we avoid comparisons to the Holocaust. For me, this is not acceptable, from both a moral and scientific point of view. I hope that in the near future we will understand that we must teach and study other acts of genocides. A comparison will not diminish the importance of the Holocaust, it will only increase it.

In my opinion this is very important, first of all as a human being and a Jew, but also because the Jewish genocide has significance for humanity. We diminish the importance of the Holocaust by looking at it in a too particularistic manner. Secondly, it is important for me to say that we as victims, Jews, Armenians, Tutsi and unfortunately many others, have a lot in common. In my opinion the acts of genocide, that we survived, makes us brothers, in the deepest sense of the word.

There are three "classic" examples of genocide: the Jewish, Armenian, and Rwandan. There are of course other cases in the 20th century, but in genocide studies scholars accept these three as models. The victim societies are brothers, because we suffered the same atrocities. I believe we have to create a fraternity between victims and not competitions and divisions.

But, we have "competition" among the victims - who suffered more! This is unacceptable from a moral and scientific point of view. We, the Jews, are quite responsible for this because we talk about exclusivity. When I speak with young students in Israeli universities they say, "Ours is the greatest, ours is the most...We suffered more…" When I ask them what they mean by "the most", they answer the "gas chambers". I say yes, indeed this is a unique characteristic, but we cannot measure the suffering of human beings.

Suffering is suffering! We have to accept suffering, not measure it and saying, "We suffered more!" We have to try to identify with the misery of others.

Now comes an important question, can I, Yair, participate in a genocide? Yes, I can! The most terrible aspect of genocide is that it is committed by human beings, not by God. I do not like the term Holocaust because, even as a Greek term, it seems like some act of God or related to God, when it's an act of human beings. Humans have done it, continue to do it and will go on. We have to face the fact that this will happen. Only with education we can minimize it.

Furthermore the people who commit the genocides are "ordinary people". What does this expression mean? It means that they are what we call "common people". They are not psychopaths, nor mentally ill.

I have a story relating to a person who became a close friend of mine, Yolande Mukagasana, a Tutsi woman. She lost all her family: three children and her husband. She was known because she was a nurse. She was a midwife and helped at childbirths, many times free of charge. The Hutu would look for Tutsi targets, known leaders. They would announce their names over the public address systems and the radio. She was ultimately saved, by a religious woman, Jacqueline Mukansonera, by hiding her within a small space in Jacqueline's house. The nurse would come out at night to stretch and clean up. Once she heard a neighbour fighting with her husband, who spent all the day at the checkpoint to kill Tutsis. She would ask him how many people he had killed that day and begged him not to go the day after, but he answered that he had to save Rwanda. As a rule, such things occur during all acts of genocide, and a soldier can say I am killing, what he considers as, his enemy to save his so called his country.

"Can I participate in Genocide?"

Could I participate in a genocide? Should I risk my life to save people? Do people risk their lives to save others?Am I a bystander as the majority of Humanity? Those are, for me, the most crucial questions related to genocide.

Those who risk their lives to try to save other people are righteous. They are the other side of humanity; there are very few but their existence is significant for all of us.

Some months ago, during a trip to Rwanda, I was introduced by Yolande to an official of the Hutu government. This official went out of his way to save a family from being murdered simply standing between murderers and the potential victim family. He told me his father raised him with respect for the laws of the Quran. I mention this because of the current impression that all Muslims are fanatics. His father taught him Muslims have to save people; that he has to be on the side of the persecuted. This man insisted on reading me a short phrase from the Quran: "One who saves one human life - saves the entire world." This line exists also in the Jewish tradition. He also told me that he raised his son, who became an officer in the Hutu army, in this same tradition. His son's duty during the genocide was to kill he had a private gun that killed many Tutsi, on-duty or off-duty. But one point, he decided to stand by the side of the persecuted, he decided to save the Tutsis. As a result a member of his own unit murdered him. I then asked the Hutu man a difficult question: "Don’t you regret having educated your son in this tradition, for if you had not done so he would be with us today?" He thought about it for a moment and said, "No, I don't regret it; what my father had taught me, I taught my child". I was very moved. He told me: "This is the way we must educate our children." This episode was of great significance to me.

Perhaps, in some places, more jews were saved by muslims rather than christians during the Holocaust; in Bosnia, Albania, in North Africa. During the Holocaust Jews were saved by the great mosque in Paris.

Unfortunately, each victim group work for themselves. What is needed is that the victim groups exert a shared effort. We are brothers in the deepest sense of the word. We have to create a close relationship between our communities, and in my opinion, between our governments. Unfortunately, Israel does not recognize the Armenian genocide and therefore cannot work together as states in the issue of genocide prevention. This is a moral failure of the State of Israel. By taking this position, we, Israel, have betrayed the legacy of the Holocaust and its victims and we do not have the right to do this. In this way we is betray the holiness of human beings and the equal value of the life. We are all equal, Armenian, Jew, Palestinian, Tutsi or Hutu. For me this is the legacy of the Holocaust and more generally of Genocides. In all my books on genocide, published by my university in Israel, I have emphasized this in the introduction of each book..

Unfortunately, I do not think that Israel will recognize the Armenian genocide in the near future. Armenia should understand it, but not accept it.

Laws against negation regarding the Holocaust exist,but few countries have such laws about other genocides. We need anti-negation laws for all genocides. It must make be a crime to deny all expressions of genocide, not just certain ones.  Unfortunately, if you deny the Armenian genocide nobody cares. But in my view these legal acts are not the main way to prevent a genocide.

We are struggling against the world. The world actually does not care about mass killing. I am not saying that the world wants to kill people, but when it happens, it is as if nothing happens. People in the US, Europe, Israel, did not react in 1994, when everyday, over 10,000 people were murdered in Rwanda, for one hundred consecutive days! It was all over the news, but people simply did not care. They were indifferent and we still are indifferent when the murder in Syria are continuing over the past 6 years and in Darfur since 2002 – almost 15 years!

By not recognizing acts of Genocide we are preparing the ground for future one.

100 years have passed since the Turks committed the Armenian genocide and Turkey still denies it. Among the great powers - France, Russia and the German Parliament have recognized it, but neither the US, nor the UK did. Out of the approximately 196 countries in the UN, about 26, 10% recognized the genocide. By not recognizing acts of genocide now, we prepare the ground for future one.


Usually we have better knowledge of the Shoah than other genocides; the Armenian genocide is somewhat less known, even less the Rwandan. The genocide of the Gypsies is nearly unknown; where, when, and numbers is a mystery to almost all.

In Israel, when I teach the Armenian genocide and many students are shocked that the government has not recognized this genocide; they are even more surprised when they learn that their country, so shamefully, denies it. Many students have become advocates for Israeli recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Education is fundamental in limiting the chances of future genocides. Education alone cannot change the situation, the decision to commit genocide is made by politicians, not educators. In most of the democratic countries  the politician are the ones who decides about education, and surprisingly as it is, the level of Genocide Education is very low. While genocide studies were developed in the last 40 years, the level of Genocide Education remains far behind…

Let me try to summarize: my country betrays the legacy of the Holocaust and the moral values that we should learn from it. Israel shamefully denies the Armenian Genocide. Israel is one of the most important arm dealers in the world. Furthermore, the governments of Israel sold weapons to the government of Rwanda and Serbia when they were committing mass killing. All our efforts, including legal ones failed to bring the state of Israel to open their files and to publicly apologize. Let me say: to sell weapons to those criminal governments is very similar, morally speaking, to selling weapons to Nazi Germany during the World War Two and the Holocaust.

Honestly, I am quite pessimistic: the world including, Europe and USA, has become more and more self-oriented, egoist and filled with hypocrisy. The level of racism, xenophobia, hatred of "the others" and the indifference to their suffering, reach levels that we have not known since the thirties of the last century. I used to speak about three categories during acts of genocide:perpetrators, victims and the so called "third parties". I came to the conclusion that there are no third parties. If you are not with the victims, or if you are indifferent, you are morally and practically with the perpetrators. You are also responsible, and probably guilty.

What we can do? We have to continue our systematic struggle and try to work much more than we are doing on education.

Yair Auron is a Scholar at the Open University of Israel, Visiting Professor at the American University of Armenia since 2015, where he opened a program in "genocide and Human Rights Studies". He is a visiting professor in the International University of Erbil, Kurdistan.

Yair Auron

Analysis by Yair Auron, former professor at the Open University of Israel and expert on Holocaust studies

19 January 2017

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